As soon as I heard about Citizen Keane: The Big Lies Behind the Big Eyes, I knew I had to get my hands on this book. Big-eye portraits were everywhere when I was a kid — hanging in friends’ homes, advertised in magazines, and peering down from the walls of doctor’s offices, giving them a “sick children welcome here” vibe.
(Even the kitten has big eyes!)
Citizen Keane is a great read for art historians, mid-century nostalgia buffs, and fans of the Big Con. This book blows the whole big-eye phenomenon sky-high. I reached out to Citizen Keane’s publisher and co-author, Adam Parfrey, for the backstory on how this book came to be. Here’s his reply:
Adam: Citizen Keane was originally published as a cover story I wrote for The San Diego Reader in 1991.
How I got involved with that weekly paper is a story in itself. A couple staffers — one a short Jewish guy, and the other a tall blonde girl — came up from San Diego to visit me one afternoon. I had never met them before, but apparently they enjoyed books I had published through Feral House. We spoke throughout the evening but they were apparently too drunk to drive home, so I invited them to crash at my rented East Hollywood bungalow that I was in the middle of cleaning up and varnishing years-old layers of cat piss. I woke the next morning with the blonde in my bed, which confused me as I assumed she was the short guy’s girlfriend. In any case, they recommended me to publisher Jim Holman.
I wasn’t aware that Holman was a high-level Catholic who often visited the Vatican and contributed to anti-gay and anti-abortion movements in California. He nevertheless hired me to write features and a column for the paper called “HelL.A.,” my weekly disquisition on weird L.A. individuals and institutions.
When I was underway writing a feature about a strange cult, I ran into notices on telephone poles about a self-published paperback by Walter Keane called “The World of Keane.” I phoned the number on the poster and reached Keane directly, and made plans to interview him for an article. I knew of the man and his supposed art, and owned a two volume hardcover set. One of Walter Keane’s work, of the big eye kids, and the other was about Margaret’s work, mostly of Modigliani-style young women. Walter has a strange way about him, asking me intimate questions about my life and my sexual preferences. I started to wonder what made San Diegans so damn strange.
The more I researched the Keane article, obtaining transcripts of his legal troubles, the story became odd as hell, truly a great potential article. Both Walter and Margaret had been launching lawsuits for over a decade regarding the true painter of the big eye kids. The final lawsuit had just finished in Margaret’s favor by the time I interviewed them. Walter was bitter about the whole thing, and made sure to tell me creepy sex-oriented accusations about Margaret that were no doubt total lies. Margaret was a lovely and agreeable woman who devoted her life to the Jehovah’s Witness faith. By mail she sent me a few signed JW books, and its art seemed Keane-like to me, although she had nothing to do with them. After the nine or ten thousand word Reader article was published, Walter Keane wrote a letter to the editor accusing me of being paid off a million dollars by the Witnesses.
The article got quite a reaction at the time. Hip coffee shops and nightclubs started to put up Keane paintings, and a new lowbrow art magazine, Juxtapoz, reprinted it, and it later appeared in my 1994 book collection called Cult Rapture. Margaret got an exhibition at an art museum in Laguna Beach. A couple years ago I heard that the screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, the ones behind the Ed Wood movie that properly paid credit to the Feral House book, were doing a new film with Tim Burton again, this time about the Keanes. What do I think of this? I won’t reveal this in print, but at least I could publish a revised, enlarged and illustrated version prior to the film’s release. So happened the book Citizen Keane: The Big Lies Behind the Big Eyes. Author Cletus Nelson assisted me with its research.
I’ve got a busy schedule acquiring, editing and publishing a number of books through the Feral House and Process Media imprints. It’s really a full-time occupation. The Keane story and other articles or books I’ve written take quite a bit of focus and time…
A big discovery about writing stories is that one should try and call people you’re interested in reporting about. You might get a lot. For example, I found in the phone book a listing for former Los Angeles mayor Sam Yorty. A visit to his house yielded three great columns.